Christmas carols tend to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, but over the years many poets have been moved to write verse in celebration of Christmas itself. Some, by the likes of Tennyson and Wordsworth may be quite familiar, but others – popular in their day – have subsequently slipped into obscurity. Here is a selection of ten greats Christmas poems.
Our Joyful Feast, by George Wither
The largely forgotten English poet and pamphleteer George Wither (1588-1667) penned this simple, rugged Christmas carol some time before he joined the Puritans. Here is an excerpt from his poem:
So now is come our joyful feast,
Let every man be jolly
Each room with ivy leaves is dressed,
And every post with holly.
Though some churls at our mirth repine,
Round your foreheads garlands twine,
Drown sorrow in a cup of wine,
And let us all be merry.
Now all our neighbors' chimnies smoke,
And Christmas blocks are burning;
Their ovens they with baked meats choke,
And all their spits are turning.
Without the door let sorrow lie,
And if for cold it hap to die,
We'll bury it in a Christmas pie,
And evermore be merry.
Now every lad is wondrous trim,
And no man minds his labor;
Our lasses have provided them
A bagpipe and a tabor.
Young men and maids, and girls and boys,
Give life to one another's joys;
And you anon shall by their noise
Perceive that they are merry.
Christmas, by George Herbert
This is the first of the Christmas poems of George Herbert (1593–1633), the popular Welsh-born English poet and orator, and one that still resonates with modern audiences:
After all pleasures as I rid one day,
My horse and I, both tired, body and mind,
With full cry of affections, quite astray;
I took up the next inn I could find.
There when I came, whom found I but my dear,
My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief
Of pleasures brought me to Him, ready there
To be all passengers' most sweet relief?
Oh Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
Wrapt in night's mantle, stole into a manger;
Since my dark soul and brutish is Thy right,
To man of all beasts be not Thou a stranger:
Furnish and deck my soul, that Thou mayst have
A better lodging, than a rack, or grave.
True Christmas, by Henry Vaughan
Henry Vaughan (1621-95), the Welsh metaphysical poet, strikes an austere note with True Christmas:
So stick up ivy and the bays,
And then restore the heathen ways.
Green will remind you of the spring,
Though this great day denies the thing.
And mortifies the earth and all
But your wild revels, and loose hall.
Could you wear flowers, and roses strow
Blushing upon your breasts' warm snow,
That very dress your lightness will
Rebuke, and wither at the ill.
The brightness of this day we owe
Not unto music, masque, nor show:
Nor gallant furniture, nor plate;
But to the manger's mean estate.
His life while here, as well as birth,
Was but a check to pomp and mirth;
And all man's greatness you may see
Condemned by His humility.
Then leave your open house and noise,
To welcome Him with holy joys,
And the poor shepherd's watchfulness:
Whom light and hymns from heaven did bless.
What you abound with, cast abroad
To those that want, and ease your load.
Who empties thus, will bring more in;
But riot is both loss and sin.
Dress finely what comes not in sight,
And then you keep your Christmas right.
Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London, by John Gay
This festive poem by John Gay (1685-1732), vividly describes the perils and charms of the British capital at Christmas. Here is an excerpt from the poem:
When rosemary, and bays, the poets' crown,
Are bawled, in frequent cries, through all the town;
Then judge the festival of Christmas near,
Christmas, the joyous period of the year.
Now with bright holly all your temples strew,
With laurel green, and sacred mistletoe.
Now, heaven-born Charity! thy blessings shed;
Bid meagre Want uproar her sickly head;
Bid shivering limbs be warm; let Plenty's bowl
In humble roofs make glad the needy soul!
See, see! the heaven-born maid her blessings shed;
Lo! meagre Want uprears her sickly head;
Clothed are the naked, and the needy glad,
While selfish Avarice alone is sad
The Holy Night, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
In her tender, touching poem, Browning (1806-1861) reminds her readers of the religious importance of Christmas:
We sate among the stalls at Bethlehem;
The dumb kine from their fodder turning them,
Softened their horned faces
To almost human gazes
Toward the newly Born:
The simple shepherds from the star-lit brooks
Brought visionary looks,
As yet in their astonied hearing rung
The strange sweet angel-tongue:
The magi of the East, in sandals worn,
Knelt reverent, sweeping round,
With long pale beards, their gifts upon the ground,
The incense, myrrh, and gold
These baby hands were impotent to hold:
So let all earthlies and celestials wait
Upon thy royal state.
Sleep, sleep, my kingly One!
Christmas Time, by John Clare
The son of a farm labourer, John Clare (1793-1864) captures rural life in Christmas Time. Here is an excerpt:
Glad Christmas comes, and every hearth
Makes room to give him welcome now,
E'en want will dry its tears in mirth,
And crown him with a holly bough;
Though tramping 'neath a winter sky,
O'er snowy paths and rimy stiles,
The housewife sets her spinning by
To bid him welcome with her smiles.
Each house is swept the day before,
And windows stuck with evergreens,
The snow is besom'd from the door,
And comfort the crowns the cottage scenes.
Gilt holly, with its thorny pricks,
And yew and box, with berries small,
These deck the unused candlesticks,
And pictures hanging by the wall.
Neighbors resume their annual cheer,
Wishing, with smiles and spirits high,
Glad Christmas and a happy year
To every morning passer-by;
Milkmaids their Christmas journeys go,
Accompanied with favour'd swain;
And children pace the crumpling snow,
To taste their granny's cake again.
Minstrels, by William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth (1770-1850), best-known for his romantic celebration of nature, wrote this sprightly musical poem:
The minstrels played their Christmas tune
To-night beneath my cottage eaves;
While smitten by a lofty moon,
The encircling laurels thick with leaves,
Gave back a rich and dazzling sheen,
That overpowered their natural green.
Through hill and valley every breeze
Had sunk to rest with folded wings:
Keen was the air, but could not freeze
Nor check the music of the strings;
So stout and hardy were the band
That scraped the chords with strenuous hand.
And who but listened?--till was paid
Respect to every inmate's claim,
The greeting given, the music played
In honor of each household name,
Duly pronounced with lusty call,
And a merry Christmas wished to all.
Rign Out, Wild Bells, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Tennyson (1809-1892), the Poet Laureate of the second half of the nineteenth century, found pealing bells on Christmas eve the opportunity to wish for a new era:
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky, The flying cloud, the frosty light; The year is dying in the night; Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new, Ring, happy bells, across the snow: The year is going, let him go; Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause, And ancient forms of party strife; Ring in the nobler modes of life, With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care the sin, The faithless coldness of the times; Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes, But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood, The civic slander and the spite; Ring in the love of truth and right, Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease, Ring out the narrowing lust of gold; Ring out the thousand wars of old, Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free, The larger heart, the kindlier hand; Ring out the darkenss of the land, Ring in the Christ that is to be.
A Visit from St Nicholas, Clement Clark Moore
The best-known Christmas poem of all, better known as 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, was first published anonymously, but was the work of the American poet Clement Clark Moore (1779-1863):
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave a lustre of midday to objects below,
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
The Oxen, by Thomas Hardy
In this poem Hardy (1840-1928) reflects on the traditional belief that oxen kneel at midnight on Christmas Eve in celebration of the nativity. It was first published in The Times on Christmas Eve, 1915
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel,
"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so. ·